Would A Pill To Protect Teens From HIV Make Them Feel Invincible?

Mar 13, 2015
Originally published on March 13, 2015 11:08 am

Leon Richardson is 18 years old and tall, charismatic and thoughtful about his sexual health.

He understands that as a young, gay black man, he is in the demographic with the highest rate of HIV infections in the country. But when Richardson learned that he could be part of an HIV prevention pill research study for young people, he was skeptical.

"I was scared. I had to really think about it, 'What is this drug going to do to me?' " he says.

The regimen, called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, can reduce the risk of HIV infection by more than 85 percent when a pill called Truvada is taken daily. In a first, the Food and Drug Administration approved Truvada for prevention of the infection in 2012. Truvada had been used previously to treat HIV infection.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends caution when prescribing PrEP to adolescents. CDC is waiting for final results from the trials being conducted on young people in cities across the country.

Initially, Richardson's mom stoked his concerns. "She was saying the medical industry tried to sterilize some people; they were trying to do it again," he remembers. But he found encouragement from another family member: his grandfather, who is HIV-positive.

"We had a long discussion about this drug and what the side effects could be, and he overall supported me totally," Richardson says. "And it was kinda like, why not? Let me just try it."

Now, Richardson is part of CRUSH, an HIV-prevention project in Oakland, Calif. CRUSH offers PrEP to participants.

Daniel Zeh is part of a PrEP study being conducted by the Adolescent Trials Network with young people between the ages of 15 and 22, based at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital in Chicago. He was 17 when he started taking the pill as part of a daily regimen that was sometimes hard to explain, he says.

"I guess it was kind of weird during high school, popping it before lunch, trying to make sure nobody sees," Zeh chuckles. "People are like, 'What are you taking?' 'Nothing, you know, just a sugar pill.' "

Zeh first heard about the Stroger Hospital study on Facebook. Outreach coordinators also turned to gay hook-up apps, like Grindr and Jack'd, to recruit possible subjects. It's a clever strategy, even if it's awkward to run into a researcher when you're looking for a date.

Psychologist Sybil Hosek, the lead researcher for the study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, offered to pay participants $50 per visit to the clinic. When enough guys said yes, she got to work.

"What we wanted to do was design a study where they could try to take this pill every day," Hosek explains. "And see whether, one, they were interested in taking it; two, if it was hard for them to take it; and three, how it impacted their sexual behavior." For instance, would being on the pill encourage more risky sexual activity?

Inside a conference room at the hospital, a group of the guys in the study share stories about what it's like to be on PrEP. Dexter Canty is also enrolled in the Chicago PrEP study, and says people have a lot of misunderstandings about the pill and individuals who take it. They're often asked, "Are you HIV positive?" But, in fact, they're taking the drug to prevent getting infected.

Canty compares the reactions he's experienced to people's perceptions when he goes to the drugstore to buy condoms or when a woman goes to Planned Parenthood and gets birth control. "You're automatically looked at as being promiscuous instead of safe," he says.

The idea is that PrEP would be used in combination with condoms. But critics worry that the pill will make users feel invincible, increasing the likelihood that they won't use condoms or follow through on taking the pill every day. And when you miss doses, the pill becomes less effective.

Andrew Weinstein, President of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is against PrEP use, especially by young people. "Young people have unstable lives. They're sleeping on someone's couch. They're out for the weekend," he says. "That's not to stigmatize them, it's just the nature of youth. It's a carefree time. Expecting people to take a pill every day is not realistic," says Weinstein.

It's enticing to imagine a magic pill that could bring about the end of AIDS. But a recent study of young adults taking PrEP shows that they take it, at best, 60 percent of the time.

This story was produced by outLoud, a project of Youth Radio.

Copyright 2015 Youth Radio. To see more, visit http://www.youthradio.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The FDA has approved a pill called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, that prevents the spread of HIV. Its brand name is Truvada. But the Centers for Disease Control cautions against prescribing it freely to adolescents until there's more research. Trials are underway for young people in Los Angeles, New York and other parts of the country. Giving this new drug to teenagers raises some sensitive issues, which Youth Radio's Rafael Johns explores in this report. He begins his story with Leon Richardson, an 18-year-old in Oakland.

LEON RICHARDSON: I was scared. I had to really think about it. Like, what is this drug going to do to me? How am I going to feel after I take it?

RAFAEL JOHNS, BYLINE: Leon is tall, charismatic and thoughtful about his sexual health. He understands that as a young, gay black man, he's in the demographic with the fastest-growing rates of HIV infections in the country. But when Leon learned that he could part of a research study about a daily pill called PrEP that blocks the transmission of HIV, he was skeptical. So was his mom.

RICHARDSON: She told me no. She was saying like - a lot, like - the medical industry tried to sterilize some people, like, they were trying to do it again.

JOHNS: But Leon was encouraged by another family member to join Oakland's HIV prevention study called CRUSH.

RICHARDSON: Well, actually, I talked to my grandfather, and he's HIV-positive, so we had a long discussion about this drug and what the side effects could be and he overall, like, supported me totally. And it was kind of like, why not? Let me just try it.

JOHNS: Currently, the FDA has approved PrEP for individuals who are HIV-negative. And it's covered under most insurance plans. The market for HIV-related drugs and services is lucrative. According to one report, its value is estimated at more than $18 billion a year. In Chicago, Daniel Zeh was 17 years old when he started taking PrEP.

DANIEL ZEH: I guess it was kind of weird during high school, too, like kind of popping it before lunch or something, trying to make sure nobody sees.

JOHNS: Daniel was recruited into the study through Facebook. At Chicago's Stroger Hospital, outreach coordinators also turned to gay hookup apps like Grindr and Jack'd to recruit possible subjects. It's a clever strategy, even if it's awkward to run into a researcher when you're looking for a date. Dr. Sybil Hosek offered to pay participants $50 per visit to the clinic. And when enough guys said yes, the psychologist got to work.

SYBIL HOSEK: What we wanted to do was design a study where they could try to take this pill every day and see whether number one, they were interested in taking it, number two, if it was hard for them to take it, and three, how it impacted their sexual behavior.

JOHNS: For instance, whether kids would take more risks. Some of Hosek's young adult participants have embraced the drug and even started telling their friends about it, like Curtis Lewis.

NATHANIEL LEWIS: So I say OK, well, PrEP is a pill, an HIV-preventative pill that you would take daily.

JOHNS: Inside a conference room at the hospital, a group of the guys in the study share stories about what it's like to field questions about PrEP.

DEXTER CANTY: You're automatically looked at as being promiscuous instead of safe.

JOHNS: Dexter Canty, who's also on PrEP, says the situation's not that unlike when he goes to the drugstore to buy condoms.

CANTY: Or a female going to Planned Parenthood and getting birth control.

JOHNS: The idea is that PrEP would be used with condoms. But critics worry that the pill will make users feel invincible, increasing the likelihood that they won't use condoms or follow through on taking the pill every day. Andrew Weinstein, president of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is against PrEP use, especially by young people.

ANDREW WEINSTEIN: Young people have unstable lives. They're sleeping on somebody's couch, you know, they're out for the weekend. You know, and that's not to stigmatize them. It's just the nature of youth is that it's a carefree time. You know, expecting people to take a pill every day is not realistic.

JOHNS: It's enticing to imagine a magic pill that could bring about the end of AIDS. But a recent study of young people taking PrEP shows they take it, at best, 60 percent of the time. And when you miss doses, the pill becomes less effective. For NPR News, I'm Rafael Johns.

CORNISH: This story was produced by Out Loud, a project of Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.